Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Balham, London


Spreading it around

The stations on the Morden extension of London’s Northern Line were designed by Charles Holden. They were the architect’s first job for the Underground (he later went on to design more stations, including textbook examples of station modernism, such as Arnos Grove on the Piccadilly Line). Balham’s station, which opened in 1926, has two ground-level buildings, both on corners at the same road junction, both clad in white Portland stone, and both displaying the Underground roundel prominently.

The central roundel, clearly visible in my picture, is in the glass of the large window that lights the double-height ticket hall by day and sends light out on to the street at might. What I’d not noticed until I looked closely when taking the picture was the design of the pair of columns that divide the window in three. These are very plain and square except at the top, where something charming happens. Instead of a capital at the head of the column there’s a three-dimensional stone version of the roundel, with a sphere instead of a disc. This ‘3D roundel’ appears on the other Holden stations on the Morden extension too.
No doubt Frank Pick, the Underground director* who commissioned Holden to design the station, appreciated this detail. Pick was the man who masterminded the design of the Underground, making the look of the network consistent – not just the stations, but all the publicity, the signage, the schematic map† of the lines, and so on. Pick made sure that the roundel was used widely – in stations and on platforms, trains, posters, advertisements… This subtle addition to the collection of roundels must have pleased him. 

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* He was Joint Assistant Managing Director when Balham station opened, and still had several promotions ahead of him. Even when a senior director he maintained the interest in design and publicity that he had always had.

† Or diagram, as its creator Harry Beck insisted it should be called. The famous diagram first appeared in 1931.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucetsershire


A symphony of semicircles

John Piper once wrote an essay called ‘The Gratuitous Semicircle’,¶ in which he noticed the use of half-round or Diocletian windows in English buildings – especially buildings in a kind of ‘country Palladian’ style. I’m reminded of this whenever I go through Moreton-in-Marsh. Stopping there a couple of weeks ago for a brief evening promenade,* the Resident Wise Woman and I once more admired this building full of semi-circles as it caught the evening sun.

It was built as a house in the mid-18th century. It’s topped with a pair of very swanky curved gables and a balustraded parapet. Below is a profusion of the kinds of windows§ that were fashionable then. First, the three-part Venetian windows, which provincial builders of this period like to use for effect, sometimes one in the middle of a frontage, sometimes more,† here on either side of the doorway. Second, the half-round Diocletian windows, which fit well under gables but here are deployed right along the upper floor, not because they fit the space especially well, perhaps just because of the way they look, echoing gracefully the curves of the Venetian windows and the old cart door on the right.

Add that to a grand if narrow doorway with pediment and fanlight, raise the whole thing on a high plinth, add a couple of wings with more semicircular windows and you have a big building with a sense that its creator had the elements of the Palladian style at his fingertips, together with a free and easy attitude towards how to lay them out. Nature, in the form of warm, low, early summer sunshine on glowing limestone, does the rest.

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Architectural Review, October 1943

* This post is another of my retrospective pieces, inspired by a visit to Moreton before my recent injury rendered my leg useless, for even such brief strolls, for the moment.

§ Clicking on the photograph to enlarge it makes these clearer.

† There's a good example of the profuse use of Venetian windows here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

South Newington, Oxfordshire


Adding value

When visiting a place with a specific architectural goal in mind, I usually take the time to have a walk around and see what other buildings I can find nearby. You never know what gems can be hiding in quiet corners, and such discoveries can give my visits added value. So when I stopped in South Newington to look at the wonderful wall paintings in the church, I strolled* around the village and found, among other things, a tiny converted Primitive Methodist chapel (too hemmed in by cars to take a photograph worth sharing) and this building, which is the village hall.

A pleasant bit of North Oxfordshire vernacular architecture, built of the local butterscotch-coloured stone, set in its own grounds: it must be an asset for the village. But it has not always been the village hall. What we’re also looking at here is an early Quaker meeting house, built in the 17th century, set in its own burial ground. There’s even a datestone, to confirm the construction in 1692. It’s not much changed on the outside, except for the 1920s addition of the porch (and perhaps the side extension). Quakers met here until the 19th century. The structure is labelled ‘Friends Meeting House’ on a map of 1875, although by then it was leased to the Methodists, with the Quakers said to be still using it occasionally. It became the village hall in 1925 – a case of architectural added value if ever there was one.
Datestone: The date 1692 is just discernible in the bottom line of the inscription.

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* I wrote this post a few days ago. Shortly afterwards I injured a leg, so strolling will be minimal for a while. Blogging, however will continue: I intend to use the mishap as an opportunity to post some previously visited buildings that I have been meaning to share with you.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Great Brington, Northamptonshire


Hub

In the town where I live (population roughly 6,000) the Post Office has closed and we now have a Post Office counter in the town’s branch of the Co-op. The Co-op staff do very well in the small space allocated to this in my view important function, and they open longer hours than the Post Office did, but it’s still not the same.

How refreshing then, to find small villages where the Post Office still functions. Here’s the Post Office in Great Brington, which seems to be going strong, the archetypal village Post Office with stone walls under, thatched roof, and tiny shop window – presumably it was once a cottage but no matter, its central location is the most important thing. Post Offices are local hubs, places where people meet, talk, exchange news, read notices, and network, and this function is nearly as important as the posting of letters and parcels, and the doing of the many other small financial and administrative tasks that Post Offices still perform, even in their somewhat diminished modern form. Perhaps the fact that a bench has generously been provided on the pavement outside reflects this role of the Post Office as a local centre.
Clearly this Post Office has been doing the business for decades. I found a 1922 photograph of it online, with its Post Office sign up and another sign telling customers that the services on offer then included ‘money orders, savings bank, parcel post, telegraph, insurance and annuity business’. That sign has gone, but the worn wooden Post Office sign, also visible in the 1922 photograph, is still there, faded but just about legible. It’s not exactly essential – the letter box (a George VI era wall box) and red sign above the door tell us where we are. But it is pleasing that it’s still here to remind us of the office’s long history.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Guiting Power, Gloucestershire


Brewery plaques (1): The best in the west

People like to know what they’re getting. Most of us read the menus posted near the doors of restaurants. And a lot of us want to know what kind of beer a pub serves, especially if it’s a tied house. One way of making this clear is with a plaque showing the company’s symbol and name, a simple and appealing graphic device that can be just as effective as writing the brewery’s name in big letters across the front of the pub. Several breweries adopted ceramic plaques that could be mounted on the outside walls of pubs, somewhere near eye-level, and which became instantly recognisable.

One particularly effective design is the stylised castle used by the Cheltenham Original Brewery, later Cheltenham and Hereford Breweries, later still West Country Breweries. The name changes came after mergers, and all the companies used these plaques with the castle and the slogan ‘The best in the west’. Plaques from the last incarnation, West Country Ales (see the image below), are still quite common. They were used between 1958 and about 1967, by which time the company had been taken over by Whitbread. But I’ve seen one ‘Cheltenham and Hereford Ales’ plaque, on the former Foxhill Inn in the Cotswolds, on the B4068 near Guiting Power. This plaque, shown in my photograph above, must date to some time between 1947 and 1958, when this name was current. The building no longer functions as a pub, but the plaque is a bit of its history that has been preserved.

These attractive plaques were produced by Royal Doulton of Lambeth in London, whose architectural ceramics I’ve featured several times on this blog. Barley and hops trail around the border of the plaque and the castle or tower design is instantly recognisable. It’s a clear design, easy to spot, and, although the colours vary a bit, the tower usually stands out from a deep blue sky. In Gloucestershire there are still so many of the of the West Country Ales plaques around that we take them rather for granted. But more than a passing glance reveals that the design is a class act.
West Country Ales plaque, Gloucester

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Avoncroft, Worcestershire


Taking its toll

Thinking about the bridge house at Cookham in the previous post reminded me not only of the numerous toll houses I’ve seen by the sides of main roads up and down England but also, specifically, of one at the Avoncroft Museum. This little building was rescued in around 1985 and was resited at the museum, where it has a pleasant leafy site. It was originally built in 1822 at Little Malvern, Worcestershire, for the collection of tolls by the Upton upon Severn Turnpike Trust. Back in the 19th century, anyone wanting to travel along this particular stretch of road in a landau had to fork out sixpence in the old money, but if you brought only your horse, the charge was ‘a penny-ha’penny’, or 1.5 of the old pence.

The house takes the usual polygonal form of these turnpike houses, and although it’s quite a plain brick building, it has the fancy Gothic glazing that was fashionable in the early-19th century. It no longer stands by a roadside, but the people at Avoncroft have put up a gate outside, to give an impression of the original set-up, with passersby stopping at the gate to pay their money before being allowed to pass through on to the turnpike road.
The joy of places like Avoncroft is that they restore the insides of their buildings, and visitors can go inside to look at the spartan but charming interior: a living room and scullery downstairs and two bedrooms above. The ground floor has quarry tiles, an iron range for cooking and heating, and very basic pine furniture. Upstairs there is an iron bedstead, a wooden child’s cradle, and a chest of drawers. Under the bed is the necessary chamber pot. The house had an earth closet in the garden, and when the building moved to Avoncroft, that came too. The life of another era? Maybe, but I remember in the 1960s that my grandparents got by with the same sanitary arrangements in their remote Lincolnshire cottage. Places like Avoncroft remind us that the remote past is not as remote as it seems.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cookham, Berkshire...and Buckinghamshire


Where is it?

It’s odd, said a Czech friend, how many English houses have their chimneys at the end. We were having this conversation in southern Bohemia, surrounded by houses with chimneys right in the middle of the building, where the warmth they generate helps to heat the whole of the house. I was showing him Cotswold pictures, and here every house seemed to have its chimneys at the end, in the gable. I explained that this was partly to do with history – many of these houses had started as timber-framed buildings, with a brick chimney built as a semi-independent structure, to best protect against fire damage. The layout survived the change to stone building.

Of course, end chimneys are not the invariable rule. Here’s a house of an unusual shape, with a chimney right in the centre of its octagonal plan. The building is a toll house, and such houses were often polygonal, so that the person inside could see traffic coming from different directions. With such a building it seems natural to put the chimney in the middle, both for convenience – keeping the fireplaces away from the walls, freeing them up for windows – and aesthetics.

When I saw this small brick tollhouse on the end of Cookham Bridge, I looked it up in Pevsner’s Berkshire volume. There was the entry for the bridge (1867, iron, by Pierce, Hutchinson and Co of Darlington, with quatrefoils on the parapet). So far, so good. But no entry for the tollhouse. Then it dawned on me. Here we are right on the border between Berks and Bucks – the river (it’s the Thames) marks the boundary. The tollhouse is in Buckinghamshire. It’s said to be early-19th century, so perhaps it’s older than the bridge. It still seems to be used as a house, and though the days of tolls for this particular crossing are long gone is still a shining example of usefulness and elegance.